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Michael Jackson, Celebrity, Empathy, and the Culture of Silence

The thing is: celebrities, they belong to you.

This isn’t completely true, of course. They’re people. They don’t, or shouldn’t, belong to anyone but themselves. But to be a writer, an artist, a musician, or any sort of entertainer, is to give people little shreds of yourself – over, and over, and over again. This is true no matter how commercial, or calculated, or patently artificial the stuff you produce might be: even if you’re putting on an act, even if you’re putting on an act that has a lot of creators, it’s still a document of you, what you said or did or how you moved or how you sounded at a certain time; it doesn’t exist without you.

If it works – this process of giving yourself to people – it works only because those pieces of you speak to people: they allow people to project their own meanings, or feelings, or needs, or actual or desired identities, onto you. Every single person who takes up that little shred of your life will end up putting more of themselves than of you into it (because they don’t know you, obviously) but what they end up with, in the end, is a version of you: a mental construct, maybe (generously) 5% actual You-the-Person and 95% You-as-Composed-of-Associations-and-Projections, some chimerical weird imaginary friend who somehow carries all of the feelings of solace or joy or excitement that they got from your work, and toward whom they feel all the kinship or gratitude or friendliness anyone would naturally feel toward someone who gave them all this, who gave it over and over, saying, implicitly: for you, for you, this is all for you, I love you. Of course, of course, they care about you. You, the Celebrity; You, the Imaginary Friend. Even if you might not actually be able to stand them. Even if they might not actually be able to stand you. Even if you are nothing like what they imagine.

And then you die.

Like: David Foster Wallace. As you can maybe imagine, due to the fact that I talk about him all the goddamn time, David Foster Wallace was someone with whom I had a firm and long-standing imaginary friendship. He died; he died unexpectedly, and young, and awfully; I read the post on Gawker. I texted the news to someone, then I sat there and said, aloud, “we’ll never get another book.”

We won’t. I won’t. Me, me, me. It was a completely narcissistic reaction, which I didn’t realize until much later, when I read the obituary on the AV Club and some knob was going off in the comments about how David Foster Wallace was just like him, you know, they were from the same state, and they thought alike, and if he were smarter and funnier he’d be David Foster Wallace, and I was sitting there hating the guy and then I realized: David Foster Wallace probably wouldn’t have liked me. Maybe I wouldn’t have liked him either. He went off on rants about political correctness; he had theories about language and usage that would irritate the pants off me if they came from any other source; he wrote that one piece about porn that had me swinging between admiration for his writing and empathy and rage at his elitist, Othering stance; I fucking hate math, sports, and abstract systems of thought that I can’t tie to lived experience or practice, and these things, if I understand correctly, were great and abiding passions for one David Foster Wallace, Writer. I had no greater claim to my DFW than this dude had to his, so how could I judge him? And why was I so willing to do so?

The thing is, Michael Jackson just died. I’m seeing loving tributes all over the place – some professionally written pieces, some personal testimonies. While I recognize that many of these people are paying tribute to their Michael Jacksons, their childhoods, all of that stuff that’s cathected in the first few notes of the bass on Beat It or the Thriller video, I can’t help feel that we have a responsibility to look past our own Michael Jacksons, and to the fact that it is absolutely, undoubtedly, certainly more likely than not that he committed sexual assault more than once in his lifetime – and that to do anything else is to contribute to a culture of silence surrounding sexual assault and abuse.

Because I’m seeing people arguing that there’s no plausible evidence that he ever did those things.

That’s a step too far.

Here’s the thing, here’s another guy with whom many people had intensely personal relationships based on his work, and who died, unexpectedly and young and awfully: John Lennon. John Lennon hit women, and was a misogynist for a very large portion of the time during which he produced this work. Before I read certain posts over at The Curvature, I did not know this. It was not part of the commonly told story of John Lennon. Now: this takes absolutely nothing away from his work, although “Run For Your Life” (I’d rather see you dead, girl, than see you with another man) will probably never, for me, be comfortable listening. I can also cite John Lennon as a man who became a feminist, who challenged and worked to unlearn his own misogyny, who wrote “Mother” (you didn’t want me… Mommy, don’t go) and maybe got all of his shit about Women out in the open and worked through it: a man who was, I would argue, actually substantially healed by feminism. This maybe makes it easier for me to look at and accept the fact that he did have those issues about Women, and that they (along with the fact that our culture accepts and encourages misogyny, and along with his enormous fame) resulted in him actually hurting actual women.

Now: Michael Jackson had issues about Childhood. You don’t have to know much to know that, right? It’s hard not to see his childhood as reflected in those old performances – this undeniably gifted, much-beloved little dude who was already performing in this eerily precise and adult way, as if he’d been trained to it, which he was, because it was the only value he had in the eyes of own father – without realizing that, for Michael Jackson, Childhood must have been a very weird mix of bliss and self-worth and self-loathing and terror. It’s hard not to feel empathy for him.

Here’s the thing, though: he publicly endangered his own children. He was clearly unstable and/or addicted in ways that meant he should in no way have been allowed to have custody of his children. He acted in clearly suspicious and predatory ways toward many, many children. He was in a position of authority and trust that allowed him to have access to many, many children. He was alleged to have sexually abused more than one child, and given both the fact that it is exceedingly difficult to successfully prosecute sexual assault and the fact that he had the money and resources necessary to settle the cases or bring on defense attorneys willing and able and gifted enough to utilize every single dirty trick that we all deplore in court, it would have likely been impossible to convict him even if, say, the assaults had been caught on tape.

And, given the fact that sexual abuse is common and underreported, and that false allegations are rare, and that children rarely if ever give coherent accounts of it because they are children, and have been raped, I consider the evidence against him to be so very overwhelming as to make any less-than-serious treatment of it – like, say, failing to address it, or minimizing it, or rationalizing it by pointing out that he had entirely understandable issues around Childhood – to be highly irresponsible, and to reinforce the rape culture in which we live, in which rape and sexual assault are regarded as private, umimportant, excusable transgressions, and in which confronting an abuser or talking about his history of abuse openly or insisting it must play an important, even central role in our evaluation of the abuser’s life and legacy, is somehow an attack on him.

I don’t want Michael Jackson to become another John Lennon. I don’t want him to be someone whose abusive behaviors are erased from the record. Something some feminist has to dredge up later. I used to think it was unlikely. Now, I just hope it is.

Some of this may have to do with the fact that I might be a little too young to have ever developed a personal Michael Jackson. “Beat It” was the first song I ever liked – the first song, in fact, that registered for me as a song, rather than as sound – and I remember trying to moonwalk, and I have vague memories about Captain EO just like everyone else. But my first real memories of him are of the first abuse allegations. Now, when I see the videos – people keep talking about how he danced – I see that he moved maybe, sort of, like David Foster Wallace wrote: there was the same elasticity, the same joy (I always thought of David Foster Wallace’s writing as, somehow, the most purely joyful that I had ever read; it was how he played with the language, not even necessarily what he said; I didn’t know him), the same simultaneous sense of “how the hell is he doing that? People can’t do that” and “oh, holy Christ, that looks good.” I can see why people are drawn to it; why they love it; why they might love, even, in a way, the man himself. For giving that to them.

But he was an abuser, both publicly and in ways that we can’t ever fully know. We have to make that part of the picture. Because the rest of it – the joy, or the solace, or the kinship – that was never only him. That was never even him.

That was you.

That was always you.


  1. oshima wrote:

    I think it's only natural that people want to idolize things, specifically other, more famous human beings. I'd argue that role models serve a purpose, of course. When your idols are fictional book characters or TV characters there's less issue…the problem arises when you confuse your perfect mental image of some famous person (a mental image that might be carefully and subtly altered so they're more satisfying or more personal to you) with the actual human being themselves.

    In certain other countries, famous singers and other figures have a heavy curtain over their private lives — my friend relates a story of some boy-band member announcing his marriage to the media, only to have a distraught female fan (who had never met this singer) announce online that she was going to immolate herself in her apartment as protest against the singer's NOT marrying HER. (The fan was alright in the end, but because of things like this, there's heavy secrecy surrounding a lot of similarly famous people.)

    I wish I could offer something to the tune of "and here's how we SHOULD be treating famous people" by way of closing, but I've got nothing else, other than to say I agree with your post and think the unwillingness of many people to even -consider- that he could have done something so inexcusable is highly problematic. I can't find the origin of the quote, but somewhere someone famous said "Do not build monuments to the living, because they still have time to dishonor themselves." I'd add that you shouldn't build any sort of monument at all without the understanding that people are human, and are fully capable of amazing as well as thoroughly reprehensible acts.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  2. donnah wrote:

    Well written, well said.

    I am approximately the same age as he was. I grew up with the little boy who became an icon. So the better part of my knowledge of him is prior to his public unraveling. I was never a "fan", but his music was, and still is, everywhere.

    The issues are difficult for me. Yes, he was suffering from what appeared to be genuine mental illness. He essentially disfigured himself over time. He had demons most of us probably can't even begin to imagine. What he did to children is unthinkable. These things I acknowledge. This part of him, however much of it is true, is despicable.

    But he did good things, which makes it difficult for me, the young part of me who still marvels at his talents. He brought black and white together, pulling Motown into mainstream, giving pop a depth it never had before. He changed radio and then video. Not singlehandedly, but as a force to move it forward.

    So I sit with his sins on one hand and his talents on another and I cannot weigh them. I don't know how.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  3. EmmATX wrote:

    Thank you! I have been getting progressively angrier at the glowing, sentimental remembrances I'm seeing everywhere. He was a child molester, for god's sake.

    While I would not wish anyone dead, as soon as I heard I felt relief for his children's sake. I don't know if he abused them, but in my opinion it's more likely than not. Maybe they can start to live a more normal life soon.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  4. meloukhia wrote:

    This is the first response to Jackson's death in which the issue of abuse has actually been *addressed,* let alone *mentioned,* and you have articulated pretty much exactly what I have been wanting to say. I'm uncomfortable with the deification of the dead in general, especially when it apparently means giving people a free pass on the terrible things that they did.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    This all reminded me to find this on Youtube:

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  6. amonitrate wrote:

    I think it's uncomfortable to be made so aware that abusers are often the abused all grown up. I think that's what's so hard about him. You can hate what he did and still have compassion for the boy that he was. And for the person he never got to be. It's just very, very difficult sometimes, especially when it feels like the bad is being erased for the good.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  7. belgatherial wrote:

    Thank you for this. I have been a silent reader of your work for a while now (and it never fails to entertain, and make me think – so thank you for that too), but this hit the nail on the head. It's been bugging me too.

    I recognise that he was talented, but it has been years, maybe decades, since anything good came out of him. And the fact that all the bad has been completely left out of almost everything I have read in the last day is… worrying. So thank you for saying, far more eloquently, what I have been struggling to articulate to myself.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 5:36 pm | Permalink
  8. Cara wrote:

    It's funny: when I saw crowds spontaneously gathering yesterday, the thought that went through my mind is "Michael Jackson cannot be the John Lennon of my generation." Just for totally different reasons!

    Not because of the music — musically speaking, I imagine that he does and should have that kind of status. But because when crowds spontaneously gather like that, they're doing it for more than just the music. At that point, you're doing it for a person. And I do think that there is a difference between John Lennon and Michael Jackson, and that you alluded to it — John Lennon started out as a very man very difficult to admire and transformed himself into someone that it is possible to like and respect as a person. Starting out as someone incredibly sympathetic and turning into someone who I absolutely believe was a sexual abuser, Michael Jackson kind of took the opposite trajectory.

    That said, I of course think it's bullshit that we never talk about John's abuse. As I said in the post there, it's obscured in most Lennon bios. Even when they generally portray him as a total prick, and an asshole, and someone who would get into bar fights and use homophobic slurs, etc. The part about abusing women? Usually gets left out. And it's ugly. And it says a lot about where our priorities lay. And it absolutely feeds into that culture of silence.

    Which is why I included it in those posts. Even though it would have been easier to leave it out. And few people would have ever known the difference. Because it's important to talk about. And it's important not only to understand him as a person and his transformation and some other such bullshit (though it is necessary to those comparably rather unimportant matters), but also because we can't just let abuse be erased for those we like. We can't.

    Look. I get it. I love John Lennon. To itty bitty, tiny bits. I have an imaginary friendship with him, even though he was dead before I was born. I understand being able to look past a person's enormous, huge, monumental faults and still love them.

    I don't understand denying and covering up the faults. And that is precisely what I've been seeing people do.

    Anyway, I've written enough of a book. But thank you Sady, so much, for this post.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 5:51 pm | Permalink
  9. feministswithfsd wrote:

    Agreeing with the other commenters and this post at large – this is so far the only blog I've seen that actually did a good job of addressing the abuse, and what ignoring or glossing over the abuse means.

    It's really distressing to me… I see all these tributes & praises, maybe peppered with some superficial acknowledgement of some of negative & dangerous things he did in life. I'm seeing words like "Alleged," "Accused," but I thought we were supposed to listen to victims… The overwhelming sentiment is… well, sentimentality.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  10. Rachel wrote:

    I find mass public grieving over celebrities insincere and distasteful at the best of times (although I agree with you that what people are really grieving are themselves and what exists in their own imaginations), but I think what compounds this with Michael Jackson is what a tragic life he led: from the inner demons he appears to have fought, to the abuse he appears to have committed.

    The former doesn't excuse the latter – AT ALL – but it probably goes some way to explain it. And I wonder if, if we could talk about abuse in a way that wasn't about victims and villains (which is hard to do, because the effects of it are so awful), it might become easier to talk about. Perhaps focusing on "what"s, "why"s and "how"s rather than "who"s is part of the answer?

    I can understand that in the immediate aftermath of someone's death, a lot of people don't want to acknowledge the bad things they did in life. But I also agree that sweeping matters like this under the carpet does much more harm than good, not only for the people who have come forward about Michael Jackson, but for sexual abuse survivors more generally.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  11. BeckySharper wrote:

    Thank you for verbalizing exactly what's been on my mind since I heard about MJ's death. Well done.

    There is no doubt in my mind that MJ was a pedophile. His befriending children from troubled homes (with money-hungry, negligent parents), giving them alcohol and gifts…it's classic grooming behavior. The fact that he was never convicted means nothing–the majority of predators are not, particularly when they have money, power and, in MJ's case, an iconic status that seems to hypnotize people into believing he can do no wrong (sort of like…oh…priests, maybe?)

    I also agree with what EmmaTX said above about the likelihood of him abusing his own children. Pedophiles often do.

    Child molesters do not stop molesting unless they are dead or in jail. Maybe MJ's death will bring some closure to his victims, although I can't imagine how they feel seeing this international grief frenzy over the man who abused them.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 6:39 pm | Permalink
  12. Spatula wrote:

    I hang around a fairly articulate and intelligent board where people discuss celebrities when they need a quick mental vacation. Very rarely did anyone address him other than "wacko" and worse, in the past few years. He was a figure of derision and rubber-necking, horrified fascination. Now the very same people are posting teary, nostalgic, idolizing thoughts about the very same Jackson that was the board's favourite boogaboo object of vilification!

    I don't get it. Does dying magically erase a history of madness, child exploitation and extremely probable abuse? Does it make what he did to himself invisible? Does it make what he did to kids invisible? What the hell is this glowing treatment of him as someone who was a great public figure, now that he's dead? He was a great public figure, then he became a self-mutilating child abuser, and remained so until he died! Where did all of that go all of a sudden?

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 7:02 pm | Permalink
  13. fugitivus wrote:

    Thanks for this. I really think there's a huge generation gap going on here because, like you, my first very cohesive memory of Michael Jackson is the abuse allegations. I can recognize that he was a fine artist, that he was a huge symbol, that his superstardom opened doors for African-Americans. I can recognize that he had huge impacts on people's personal lives. But I never lived any of that.

    What I did live through was being a child of about the age of the ones he was accused of molesting, and thinking to myself, "If someone that rich molested me, they'd get away with it." And then I watched him do so, and had to revise my ideas of the world: somebody had done an unspeakable wrong, gotten caught, the whole world knew… and he got away with it. That was the first thing I really knew about Michael Jackson.

    It's not necessary to think horribly about Michael Jackson, and throw away everything else he ever did and ever meant, in order to admit that he molested children and that was a fucking horrible thing. What we can do — and what we should do — is talk about his childhood as more than an excuse or a sympathy card. We can talk about the fact that he was abused as a child, and then went on to abuse children, and that those two things are fucking connected — which is why we have to *talk about* and *prevent* and *stop* abuse, goddammit. That's how that whole abuse thing works — it destroys people, unless society intervenes. Michael Jackson was an utterly destroyed man, and that's tragic, and it's horrible, and it's a direct result of *pretending abuse doesn't exist.* And by that, I mean both the abuse in his childhood, and the abuse he perpetrated as an adult: if either one of those had been stopped, this man would have had half a shot of being far less broken and crazy.

    Most of the time, the public can go on without fully understanding the epidemic proportions of child abuse, and the real and huge social and human costs. Right here, we have a chance to make the devastating effects of child abuse known, to humanize it in a way we usually don't. We have a chance to make child abuse something that happens to one we consider the best and the brightest of us, and something that is capable of destroying our most beloved icons down to their very soul. This could be a perfect time to talk about how this incredibly talented and charismatic person was so broken by the horrible abuse perpetrated upon him that he went on to abuse others, and himself, to a heart-breaking and sickening degree. This could be a time to talk about the fact that being rich, or being loved, or being talented, does not mean you weren't abused, and it does not mean that you weren't abusive, and it doesn't mean that we as a society get any kind of collective pass on not having intervened in the way we should have.

    My generation didn't really get the chance to connect with the music, or the icon. But there's a lot of us that could connect with the fact that there was a talented and incredible person who was so utterly destroyed by child abuse that the fabric of his entire life was warped and unrecognizable. There's a lot of us who could really deal with hearing more about "child abuse: it's a real problem, and it destroys lives, and we need to help kids before they get this fucked-up" and less with "child abusers: if they dance well, we just love 'em."

    All I can think while watching this news coverage is that it must suck pretty hard to be one of his victims right now. Everywhere you turn, somebody is calling your rapist the most wonderful man alive.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 7:26 pm | Permalink
  14. susanita wrote:

    Thank you for writing this. I have been boycotting the news coverage because I cannot stomach the media fueled mass hysteria, and revisionist history that has been going on since MJ died.

    It would be more useful if, instead of lionizing MJ, his passing could open up a discussion about the exploitation and abuse of children, and how these abuses are perpetuated over and over, generation after generation.

    But that would mean that the people who had a stake in enabling his behavior (family, business associates, fans) would have to take some responsibility, and we all know how that would go.

    Fuck it. That dude sure could dance.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 7:26 am | Permalink
  15. DaisyDeadhead wrote:

    Wonderful post. I felt the same way about JG Ballard as you did about Wallace… he said things FOR ME that I could not say, he articulated a vision that I shared with him, but could not communicate at all until he put it into words. (and the word we fans have for that is "Ballardian") And yet, make no mistake, he was an elitist British doctor who probably wouldn't have given me the time of day if we had met in person.

    Michael and I were less than a year apart age-wise, so I grew up with him, literally. This means as he stayed so childlike, I was getting older and taking on grown-up responsibilities. (I made mix-tapes for my child and included his songs, so she is devastated now also.) I would be driving my kid to clarinet recitals whilst listening to the radio chat about his weirdo all-night, cartoon-watching slumber parties. (No way I'd let my kid go there, I thought.)

    I was extremely upset over all of the abuse-allegations, since I knew his fame and money meant he wouldn't get the psych treatment another defendant would receive, which is what (IMHO) he needed. John Lennon is a great example–but the difference is that Lennon himself realized he was a mess and went into all kinds of bizarre therapies, primal screams, etc… I can't imagine that kind of self-awareness from MJ. Too far gone. John Lennon grew up orphaned and poor, not spoiled. By contrast, Michael's whole life consisted of people simultaneously catering to him and exploiting him. How can anyone get out from under that? Of course, that is the exact way he approached children–talking about them as if they were little angels/saints/Gods, and then exploiting them, too.

    I've read about how Michael and his brothers shared bedrooms while on tour, 5 boys in one room, and he had to endure Jermaine and Tito and the others bringing fans back to the room for sex. He had a sexual crash-course, a tutorial, right in front of him. He would try not to watch or listen, but sometimes the room would get FULL, and there was no choice.

    We must see his death as a tragedy, and to do so, we must understand everything that happened to him. To do otherwise is to shortchange him AND the children he abused.

    This is a way to learn how child abusers are created.

    I am still devastated by his death, though. I posted a song by the boy, not the man, and when he sings "there's so many things we haven't done"–he just sounds so wistful and there is such longing… I started crying all over again.

    There's so many things we haven't done. And he just kept trying to do them, after he grew up…


    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  16. msblenkins wrote:

    I'm about to pee my pants over "ricockulous." Cannot. Wait. To. Use. In. Conversation. Ok, that is all. I'm going to go back and read the rest of this awesome dialogue now.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 9:30 am | Permalink
  17. msblenkins wrote:

    Ok, I don't know what happened; I was just reading the latest "Sexist Beatdown" and wanted to comment; now I've just realized that I sent my comment to this posting?! Which I haven't read. But probably doesn't contain the word "ricockulous." Which is what my comment pertained to. So please disregard. Terribly sorry.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  18. Spatula wrote:

    Fugitivus, six million times yes to everything you said.

    "Michael Jackson was an utterly destroyed man, and that's tragic, and it's horrible, and it's a direct result of *pretending abuse doesn't exist.* And by that, I mean both the abuse in his childhood, and the abuse he perpetrated as an adult: if either one of those had been stopped, this man would have had half a shot of being far less broken and crazy."

    I try to exercise some caution in linking being abused as a child to becoming an abuser, because it's an easy way for the abuser to get off the hook. Lots of abused children grow up NOT to be abusers. But if either Michael Jackson the victim or Michael Jackson the abuser had been stopped, there would have been a lot less pain, for him and for the kids he hurt. Michael Jackson's well-being should have been paramount when he was a kid. His well-being as a wealthy, powerful adult exploiting his position to prey on chidren is no longer what I would consider an important issue. His tragedy as a child was how he was treated. His tragedy as an adult is far exclipsed by the tragedy of those he hurt.

    I mean, seriously. The man could have bought an entire psych hospital to help him address his damage. He could have gone to any corner of the earth he chose, to find some healing and peace. He had no choice as a child, but he had the very definition of choice as an adult.

    It seems that the media and the public consuming the media are behaving monstrously at every point in this story they are creating together. There seems to be this willful desire to create a specific type of consumable out of this person's life, and this desire overrides any ethical consideration or any consideration of the *truth* of that life, at its every point.

    The words "Michael Jackson" evoke revulsion for me. For himself, for the media, for the justice system and the public. Seriously – will no one think of the goddamn children?

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 9:48 am | Permalink
  19. ChelseaWantsOut wrote:

    When I was very little, I thought Michael Jackson was awesome because my brother did. My brother had the one sparkly glove and everything. After the allegations, I had a recurring, incredibly disturbing dream that Michael Jackson molested me. When I heard he had died, I was just sad about the whole thing, the whole cycle of abuse. I wish he had been able to break it, I hope his victims are able to break it. They say the strongest contributing factor to being able to break the cycle of abuse is having an empathetic witness. I somehow doubt that a parent who was willing to hand over his or her children to a pop star in exchange for monetary compensation was capable of being such a witness, but I hope those kids had someone in their life they could turn to, who would tell them that what he did was really not okay.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  20. Jordan Licht wrote:

    Thank you for this post. You elegantly summed up the problems I've had with the coverage of Jackson's death. It's one of those things where I thought what you were saying, but was unable to articulate it (until I read your post, that is). It's nice to be able to outsource your thinking once in a while.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Permalink
  21. ms poinsettia wrote:

    I think part of the tendency to lionize MJ right relates to that sudden switch of him being part of the cultural background to a vision of his life in its entirety. That vision is gutwrenching because we all participated in the sideshow his life became and when you see how sad his childhood was and how messed up he was because of that and how that then impacted on other children due to his actions, it suddenly highlights how terrible human nature can be. We don't want to acknowledge that so we focus on all his good attributes. I've been moved to tears many times in the last couple of days and like you say it's not really about MJ, but about what his life and death reveals about us.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  22. mswyrr wrote:

    Thank you. I've been avoiding all the tributes to him recently, because all the the silencing and the way people seem to have projected on to him has been really throwing me for a loop.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 6:08 pm | Permalink
  23. snobographer wrote:

    He was ten years older than me, so I was among that pre-Thriller wave of girls for whom he was one of my first crushes. My crush started fading around his third nose job – perhaps ironically around the time his popularity as a solo artist went stratospheric – but I still loved his work as a musician and performer. He was part of my pop-cultural wallpaper since "ABC."
    I have to admit I've been wrestling with some level of denial about Jackson's pedophilia since the first accusations in 1993, and I haven't quite reconciled how much my ambivalence has to do with my sentimentality about him. There's always been nagging thoughts in the back of my mind that the whole thing might have been a witch hunt born of homophobia, racism, and opportunism. I mean even if he never installed that damned Ferris wheel at that damned Neverland, there was speculation about his sexuality long before 1993. And stupid and illogical as the association is, where there's homophobia, there's speculation and hideous jokes about pedophilia. Couple that with whatever anxiety white parents who grew up on Elvis and Pat Boone didn't openly admit to when their daughters vowed to marry that androgynous pelvis-thrusting black guy and you've got a perfect breeding ground for sexual panic. Michael Jackson's sexuality has been as much a part of the landscape lo these many decades as Michael Jackson has. So I was ambivalent about the accusations in 1993 because framing MJ as a sexual deviant wasn't exactly anything new by then and he was just too perfect a target.
    But then came the Jesus juice, the motion sensors in the hallway leading to his bedroom, his compulsion – even after 1993 – to continue having boys in his bed, and his preference to befriend boys almost exclusively. My doubts just don't really hold up under all that. There's reasonable doubt and then there's willful stupidity.
    What's unfortunate is that he's such a caricature of what people generally think a child molester is. His effeminacy and his eccentricity are conflated as a profile of the *type* of person who *of course* would molest kids, which I worry disappears the vast majority of child molesters who are perfectly normal-seeming, unambiguously heterosexual guys.
    Uncontested assertions I'm seeing around the 'nets that child abuse victims necessarily grow up to be crazy child abusers aren't sitting well with me either.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 6:57 pm | Permalink
  24. D. wrote:

    Thank you for this. I've linked to you.

    Shakesville has a comment thread discussing this also. You are not alone.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 7:51 pm | Permalink
  25. Masha wrote:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I've been more and more angered and depressed over the past, er, two days or so, because the very people I usually see talking about listening to victims and so on are downplaying the fact that he was probably a molester. On another feminist blog I read, people did this, and I almost started crying because, even if I don't know these people in real life, I expected them to have more sympathy with the victim. I know that MJ was considered a great icon and so on, and influenced music, but the fact that people are so willing to overlook what he has done because they like his music is disturbing and distressing to me. A lot of people are saying things like, "Well, he was abused as a child, he should be pitied," etc. but I was abused as a child and so were most of my closest friends, and neither me nor they are abusive or rapists. Yes, whatever happened to him when he was little was horrible, but this does NOT excuse what he did, it doesn't make it expected or understandable.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Permalink
  26. happydog wrote:

    You made a lot of good points, most particularly the fact that the human being behind the celebrity becomes invisible, a projection screen for whatever the fan wants the celebrity to be. But I think your contrasting John Lennon with Michael Jackson is a very good and acute point. Lennon had enough self-awareness to realize that his adolescent misogyny was WRONG. He not only quit it, he fought it in himself, admitted it in song, and tried to atone for it. Michael Jackson never did. For that I cannot forgive Michael Jackson, nor will I eulogize him. In the end, he brought nothing to the world that the world didn't already have; he was just marketed and manipulated better. Pity I can give him; sorrow and forgiveness, I will not.

    Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  27. Other Ashley wrote:

    @Sady–This definitely had to be said by someone. I have found the silence surrounding the molestation charges to be weird and disturbing. It reminds me of going to my grandmother's funeral in December, where the immediate relatives of my booze-swilling, wife-beating, family-abandoning, child-abusing, suicide-committing grandfather showed up, and I just wanted to scream "YOU ASSHOLES WATCHED HIM DO THAT TO HER FOR 20 YEARS, WHAT THE BLUE FUCK ARE YOU DOING HERE ACTING LIKE IT'S ALL OK!"

    However, I think Snobographer makes some excellent points about why one might feel conflicted. Like many celebrities who happen to also come from marginalized groups, MJ was at an awkward intersection of power and privilege–positioned precisely so that he could victimize others while remaining vulnerable precisely because he was an easy scapegoat for the backlash.

    Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  28. Kate wrote:

    I'm more disturbed by this 'there's no smoke without fire' attitude towards a man who was cleared of all charges than I am by anything I've seen in the media or blogosphere about Jackson.

    I think that sets rather a dangerous precedent. At the very least, you have to allow people to take the very reasonable position that presumes someone who was found innocent of all charges to be, well, innocent. Frankly that seems a great deal more reasonable to me than using generalities ('sexual abuse is common and unreported' and 'false allegations are rare') to assume that someone is guilty, making the legal verdict totally irrelevant.

    How would you suggest we make this alleged abuse a part of the picture of Michael Jackson, anyway, given that he was found not guilty? Your post doesn't really make that clear. Should we skim over the legal judgement and label him an abuser anyway? That seems to be your position.

    Feeling that we 'own' or have a personal relationship to celebrities doesn't, or shouldn't, extend to making judgements based on sensationalized stories we see in the tabloid media that someone shouldn't have had custody of their children, or that they were most probably a paedophile. That sits very uncomfortably with me.

    Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 8:30 pm | Permalink
  29. Kelly wrote:

    Its not that I disagree that abuse should not be glossed over, its just that I don't think it has been. Every program I watched dedicated a significant portion to discussing the abuse allegations in depth. But I don't think it means that you can't have a short tribute on a news program that doesn't mention it. Does it really seem appropriate to be like "Jackson was the first African American musician to be played on MTV and also he molested Children btw don't forget that"

    The media coverage surrounding his trials was very extensive and not in any way ignored. Its still brought up in detail in any program about him that I watch (and I've been watching quite a few) I really think he will always be remembered as the king of pop who was also a child molesting self-mutilating weirdo. In fact I can't think of another celeb besides OJ whose crimes were more public and openly discussed.

    Monday, June 29, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  30. x. trapnel wrote:

    Another thumbs-up to Snobographer's last paragraph… I worry that one of the big reasons child abuse goes undiscovered is precisely that we think child abusers are this separate species of Deviant Monsters, different from humans in every way, and of course MJ is basically Exhibit A for that.

    I don't think we need to worry about the child-abuse stuff staying buried, though — now that publishers needn't fear lawsuits, I'm sure we'll see a raft of tell-all books in the next few months.

    Anyone think this will lead to a thoughtful and reasoned national conversation about our dysfunctional approach to children's sexuality? No? Me neither.

    Monday, June 29, 2009 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  31. x. trapnel wrote:

    Oh, also: anyone doing that summer group-read of Infinite Jest? Sady?

    Monday, June 29, 2009 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  32. Rachael wrote:

    Thank you for this! I've been thinking about this, wondering why the only time the abuse comes up is in tasteless jokes, and finding myself torn because I don't want to believe the allegations were true. I was dismayed to see how little this was discussed, even on feminist blogs.

    Thank you for saying what everyone else (including me) was afraid to say.

    Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 12:24 am | Permalink